Portland Jazz Festival Announces New Managing Director and Lineup for 2010 Event

In The Country
Luciana Souza

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Over the last few years, the Portland Jazz Festival has gone through its share of changes. Most recently, the founder and long-time producer of the festival, Bill Royston, stepped down and was replaced by jazz publicist and industry leader Don Lucoff, who for many years has worked as a consultant with many of the major jazz festivals. Lucoff said that Royston will remain active with the festival as its artistic director. “Bill essentially wanted to retire from the day-to-day operations of the festival and concentrate on simply booking the festival and managing the programming. Over the years, he’s done all of the things you have to do to run a festival. He’s gotten to the point where he wants to do what he likes best and that’s program the festival. I know what that’s like. I look at my own situation as a publicist and I don’t want to step completely away from that either, but I am looking forward to new challenges.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge has already been met. Earlier this year, overwhelmed by declining sponsorship and rising costs, the festival declared bankruptcy. Lucoff said that the publicity about the festival’s economic problems actually led to its rescue by its now title sponsor. “The folks at Alaska Airlines saw the article and stepped in as title sponsor to save the festival. They felt the festival made an important contribution to the community. And they consider the Portland area an important market for them.” The festival also is now getting support from USBank as its presenting sponsor, as well as various community organizations who have provided important in-kind support. [Full disclosure: JazzTimes is one of the sponsors of the festival. The publication sponsors approximately 20 festivals throughout the world.]

Lucoff is particularly grateful for the support of the local radio station-KMHD FM. “When you have a community-minded radio station, that can really unite a jazz community. I’ve been listening to the station a lot and I hear such a range in programming. It almost harkens back to the early days of free-form radio.”

One of his major goals for the festival that takes place February 22-28, 2010 is to further develop the audience for jazz in the Portland area. “I’ve been doing the national press for Portland for the past two years and I have seen that a lot of the national artists pass the city by. They go from Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles. And the audience here wants to hear national artists. And there are also lots of interesting newer younger musicians based here. There’s a younger demographic associated with the downtown culture. It’s a very hip place. A very different kind of city. Very progressive. The audience here has been clear in its preferences.”

The programming is fairly progressive with performances by American jazz artists such as Pharoah Sanders, Dave Douglas’s Brass Ecstasy, Luciana Souza, Mingus Big Band, Dave Holland Quintet, as well as Norwegian artists Trygve Seim & Frode Haltli, In the Country, and the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble (see schedule below). Lucoff contends that the festival is often ahead of the curve when it comes to programming, in part because of Royston’s vision and in part because it takes place in February, and not in the summer like so many US festivals. “Because our festival occurs early in the year, we see that a lot of the other festivals are waiting to see how our programming works out. It’s a barometer of sorts.”

The festival has always had new wrinkles in its programming, previously having done extensive tributes to iconic labels ECM and Blue Note. This year is no exception with a theme of jazz from Norway. Norway? Lucoff explained that,”Bill spent time at the Konigsberg Festival there and was very impressed with the talent from that area. And did you know that the Portland area has the highest percentage of people with Scandinavian roots? Our Norwegian programming is taking place at the Norse Hall, run by the Knights of Norway. So there is a tangible connection there. But what it comes down to is that we’re trying to present a younger generation of artists to develop our future audience.”

The idea that important new voices in jazz are coming from that area has been espoused in recent years by several critics, including Stuart Nicholson. Not coincidentally, the festival is also using Nicholson’s manifesto-cum-book Is Jazz Dead from 2005 as a theme of sorts. The theme of the 2010 Festival is the unique and clunky “Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)? – New Music from Norway.” Denying that they were making some grand statement about the state of jazz, Lucoff said that instead, “We’re just trying to get a dialogue going here and raise questions.”

Lucoff also sees the festival as part of a seismic shift from East to West in relation to the strength of the festivals in the region. “If you look at the festivals on the West Coast, you can start up north with Vancouver and go down to Earshot in Seattle, then us, SF Jazz Festival, San Jose Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival and down to Playboy and Angel Jazz Festivals in LA. Those are some of the best jazz festivals in the country” Ever the sports fan, Lucoff added, “We’re in a tough conference!”

“My goal in Portland is to develop programming that helps to develop the jazz audience. We want this to be a geographically all-inclusive urban festival. This year we’re expanding from the downtown to the Eastside where we see a potential young audience. We’re looking to create alternative programming. We even created a special student level membership of just $25. It’s important to have that fresh perspective.”

As with most festivals, there are more than just concerts to the 10-day-plus event. “We have an educational component that’s sponsored by the Portland Trailblazers [NBA basketball team]. We have “The Incredible Journey of Jazz,” a 60 minute multi-media presentation put together by Darrell Grant of Portland State University. The presentation explains what jazz is and the roots of jazz going back to Africa. It will go out to middle schools in the area.” The festival also hosts various “Jazz Conversations” and panel sessions with artists being interviewed by notable journalists. In recent years, JT’s own Larry Appelbaum did some of these panels, including a few Before & After sessions that later ran in the magazine.

It all adds up to a seven-day infusion of jazz for the Pacific Northwest city. For his part, Lucoff would like to see Portland recognized for its jazz scene even when the festival is over. “We’re also looking into how we might continue the national visibility for jazz for the rest of the year.”

For more information about the festival, go to the festival’s web site.

Also, JazzTimes is offering a free vacation for two to the Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air Portland Jazz Festival to a lucky reader. To enter the contest, go to the JazzTimes SoundSweeps page

Schedule of Events:

Thursday, February 25

Luciana Souza

Hilton Pavilion Ballroom, 7:30pm

Friday, February 26

Mingus Big Band

Newmark Theater, 7:30pm

In The Country

Norse Hall, 9:30 pm

Saturday, February 27

Trygve Seim & Frode Haltli

Norse Hall, 3:00pm

Dave Holland Quintet

Newmark Theater, 7:30pm

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble

Norse Hall, 9:30 pm

Sunday, February 28

Pharoah Sanders

Newmark Theater, 3:00pm

Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy

Crystal Ballroom, 7:30pm